A Tale of Two Boilers: Why Biomass is the hopeful but currently not viable option for the UGA campus

Late blooming tomatoes on Sundance Family Farm. (Photo/ Denver Ellison)

The university has two gas-powered steam boilers. Before that, they had two coal-powered boilers. These boilers were only used when the university has additional need for steam in the winter and are still only used for that reason, according to Dale Greene, the dean of the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Forces at UGA. But due to pressure from students, these boilers were replaced by electric, thermal steam boilers, meaning they are primarily powered by electricity which is powered by solar panels. 

However, one alternative the university considered was a boiler powered by wood waste, or in other words, biomass.

Biomass, in Greene’s words, is any biological material that can be burned or converted into another form of energy. Anything alive is biomass, but normally, it refers to agricultural waste such as grass, woodchips, and things of that nature. 

The U.S. Department of Energy has a video demonstrating the process of using corn for energy as a point of reference:

The university rejected biomass because it simply was not economically competitive, said Dean Greene. The logistics of trying to get wood on campus would be difficult. The wood would have to be delivered with tractor-trailers, and in the end, it would cost more than the money that would be saved by using it.

Biomass is used around the state, Dean Greene said. Wood product facilities generate some wood waste, and many of them burn it on site to provide steam for their processes.  But using the waste there makes more sense economically than it does here.

“If you’ve already got the waste at your facility, as a byproduct of manufacturing, it makes economic sense to use it to make energy,” Dean Greene said. “But if you have to truck it, you can’t truck it very far before it becomes uneconomical.” For that reason, it is not used here.

Biofuel’s overall lack of economic efficiency is the major reason that biofuel has not caught on as an energy source in the rest of the United States either said K.C. Das, Georgia Athletic Association Professor in agricultural & environmental engineering. Even though fossil fuels are pollutants, they are still ultimately the cheaper option. 

But that does not mean that biofuel could never be an option.  Since any crop that can be grown that has oil, contains sugars or contains cellulose can be used to create biofuel, they have been used to create fuel for mass consumption in other places, such as Brazil. In Brazil, sugar cane is used as fuel and converted into ethanol. It is cheaper than gas there, so it is used as a major source of fuel, K.C. Das said.

The United States has attempted to do something similar in using corn to make ethanol which is used to reduce the air polluting properties of gasoline, according to the Alternative Fuels Data Center. Currently, a large percentage of the corn grown in the United States goes to making biofuel. The main problem with that though, according to Das, is that the price of corn is affected.  Corn is also used to feed cows and other livestock, so when the price of corn is increased, the price of meat goes up for Americans.

In short, the technology is there to make all these fuels, but it is complicated and expensive. Nevertheless, Das remains hopeful.

“Normally what happens is that when a new technology is developed the efficiencies are not very high. It takes about 25 to 30 years of doing the same thing and improving it and improving it until you get to a place where the efficiency is very high. As the efficiency increases, the costs go down. Ethanol has been around since the ‘70’s. In those days, it used to cost 3 or 4 dollars to make a gallon of it. Now, it’s about a dollar.…but little by little with innovations, the costs have come down…All these biofuels I told you about, the technology is there, but little by little by little, they need to be improved and the costs will go down.”

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